May 31, 2022

Why NFTs?


hy might a cultural institution be interested in NFTs? Many would answer this question with 'to fundraise' and while this is an important part of this technology, NFTs also offer more to cultural institutions than just money. This technology encapsulate ideas around digital ownership, provenance, and authenticity, which are also concepts that underpin museum and archival practices. In what follows, we will briefly introduce how NFTs might inform these ideas in the context of cultural institutions.

NFTs, Digital Provenance, and Authentication in Museums

NFTs are a form of authentication device where the token can be used to embed trust, provenance, and digital identification into content and this idea is also central to the early use cases of blockchain in museums. For example, Monegraph was an early pioneering company in the space that was envisioned as ‘a digital art asset registry’ where artists could upload their work to the platform and register it via the Namecoin blockchain. In doing so, artists are using blockchains to regain the right to attribution over their work, they can lay claim to their pieces and of course sell them to others without losing that connection.

Since then, other projects have explored this idea. For example, ARCHANGEL is a research-led project with the University of Surrey, National Archives, and the Open Data Institute that explores how a blockchain might be used to safeguard a network of digital archives by 'restoring trust into the digital record'. It does this by using the detailed metadata stored within a blockchain about a particular file to ensure that integrity and authenticity is kept.

Although these projects hold different objectives, both prioritize blockchain's ability to authenticate and identify content. Likewise, this could play an important role in how museums approach NFTs more broadly. NFTs could support museums in being attributed to their collections as they spread across the internet and therefore provide a way to extend the collection beyond the physical four walls of the institution.

NFTs, Digital Patronage, and Museums

Another exciting opportunity with NFTs is fractional ownership where an artwork might be fractured into different digital pieces and sold as separate works. One early example in 2018 is Eve Sussman's 89 Seconds Atomized in partnership with Snark.Art. Here, the artist divided her video piece 89 seconds at Alcázar in 2,304 squares or 'atoms' representing a pixel of the video and these were sold on the Ethereum blockchain.

Eve Sussmen | Snark.Art 89 Seconds Atomized

This process creates a community of owners where owners can choose to loan their pixel out to other owners who wish to screen the video in its entirety thus giving owners a sense of control and autonomy as a co-owner.

Museums could also harness fractional ownership to build communities around particular pieces in the collection and explore ideas around sharing authority and control. In this respect, fractional NFTs could extend understanding around community engagement practices and challenge thinking about what it means to digital own something.  

The Key Takeaway

The monetization aspect of NFTs offers a new approach to fundraise, but the underlying themes associated with NFTs offer a new means to explore ideas such as authenticity and ownership. Therefore, these tokens can be used in such a way that is reflective of the core values of cultural institutions and this will be integral to the future application of this technology.